Influenced equally by American, Spanish and native Pueblo culture, New Mexico is packed with architectural and historical treasures.
Long before U.S. expansion reached New Mexico, the native people of the region, known as the Pueblo Indians, had many encounters with the Spanish, who shaped their culture almost as dramatically as the American settlers did. The mountainous northern areas of New Mexico are some of the best places for today's photographers to document how Pueblo culture has been altered by Spanish and American influences. Missions, ruins and thriving villages all around the state provide opportunities to experience contemporary Pueblo society and to learn how the native people's ancestors lived.
A weekend photographic tour of the region can be based in one city or can lead to numerous other areas. A weeklong trip allows extra time to be at locations when the light is best for the angle the structure is facing. It's no fun to show up at a place early in the morning only to discover that it faces west, as is the case with some sites.
If you'd like to visit a number of areas, you can make a loop from wherever you enter the state. Photography is usually more than an "I came, I saw, I took a picture" proposition, but some of the sites are little more than this, while others will invite a longer stay.
As you prepare for a photographic tour of the area, be aware that photos of Pueblo natives or structures cannot be sold or used commercially without permission from the reservation Tribal Council. Fees are assessed for each camera brought into each pueblo. Some pueblos allow unescorted visits, and others provide only guided tours.
Photo fees vary from reservation to reservation. If you appear to be a professional (with a vest or tripod), tribal officials will require you to read and sign a release and pay another fee. When special events such as ceremonies or dances are taking place, photography is not permitted.
In and around Santa Fe
Basing yourself in Santa Fe, N.M., can enable you to make several day trips to the surrounding pueblos. The city itself also offers many picturesque buildings and churches. Besides being the state capital, Santa Fe is a living history museum, and learning about the forces that shaped the city can help you infuse your photos with the feeling of the place. Many buildings date to the 17th and 18th centuries and bear informational plaques.
You could spend days photographing the architecture in Santa Fe, which boasts hundreds of historic buildings that have been preserved in their near-original state, but be sure to plan for shooting during at least one morning and one evening. Maps of the old town and its buildings are readily available and are a necessity to find your way around. Early morning is a must downtown. Before offices and businesses bring the crowds, the light is good and you can spend lots of time exploring and recording images.
Several buildings worth shooting include the St. Francis Cathedral, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of the Governors. Along the Old Santa Fe Trail are the San Miguel Mission church and the Loretto Chapel, home of a "miraculous staircase" said to have no visible means of support. Newer buildings offer unique photographic opportunities as well, since all structures in this part of town are required by law to adhere to the adobe style of architecture.
Day trips from Santa Fe include excursions to several national monuments. Fort Union is the farthest, located about 90 miles northeast off Interstate 25. Home to the first Army base in the state, its ruins include an old cannon and wagon parts. The 2003 National Parks pass features a photo of this site. Because the fort is in ruins, any time of day is fine for taking photos here.
Pecos National Monument is located about 20 miles east of Santa Fe, off I-25. The mix here is unlike any other in that an ancient pueblo, a Spanish mission, a cattle ranch and a Civil War battle site share the same ground. Within the main walls of the mission are some entranceway arches that offer the best photographic possibilities. Combining a trip to Pecos and Fort Union works well.
Bandelier National Monument, northwest of Santa Fe, near Los Alamos, is one of numerous cliff-dwelling sites in the Southwest. The main hiking loop offers views of a west-facing wall of dwellings that can be photographed in the morning hours but is better later in the day.
Taos and the High Road
One area deserving several days to ensure a good photo experience is Taos. The San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos, N.M., is the primary reason for the extended stay. It is east- and west-facing, and both directions deserve attention. The church, located south of town, was made famous through the work of Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe. Because of their styles, the back of the church is more famous than the front.
One of the best things about working this building, like all adobe structures, is the rich color when the sun is low on the horizon. In the evening there's a nice mixture of shadows, light and patterns on the rear of the church. Power lines and tree shadows make compositions a challenge, but they can be eliminated with a little work.
While mornings bring warm light to the church's front, there's no need to be there for sunrise, as it takes a while for the sun to crest the mountains. A lesser-known morning subject is a small house next to the San Francisco de Asis church, with its blue doors and windows. According to Indian legend, the blue keeps the evil spirits out and the good spirits inside.
After photographing the church, make a morning visit to the Ranchos de Taos town plaza. Before the shops open you can work the square and surrounding blocks, shooting parts of the adobe buildings.
North of Ranchos de Taos is the Taos Pueblo, home to the native Indians. The gates do not open until after the rich colors of sunrise have departed, but there are many other great photo opportunities here, with the ladders leaning between the levels of the multistoried buildings. The early sunsets of winter also provide some nice light shortly before the gates close. Photographers are allowed to roam freely around the dwellings, but you may not take pictures of the natives unless you first ask their permission.
Heading south out of Taos, it's best to take the small mountain highway known as the High Road back toward Santa Fe. On this road are several missions worth seeing. The first is the church of San Jose de Gracia, built in 1750, in the town of Las Trampas. The front of the church faces west, so it's best to plan your trip heading toward Santa Fe from Taos in the afternoon and early evening.
Another famous and highly visited church is El Sanctuario de Chimayo, in the settlement of Chimayo. This church is located off the High Road, but signs will guide you there. A setting of trees and mountains surrounding this church makes for challenging and rewarding images.
Between Santa Fe and Albuquerque are seven other Pueblo reservation sites similar to Taos Pueblo. None open early, so morning light is not an option; instead, spend time at these pueblos to enjoy and learn about Native culture.
On the west edge of Albuquerque is Petroglyph National Monument, with more than 15,000 images carved in the rocks, including the often-reproduced dancing flute player called Kokopelli, an ancient Hopi deity thought to represent happiness and fertility. The park is in three sections and offers hikes of varying lengths.Continuing west of Albuquerque for about an hour, the intrepid photographer can find a Native American site unlike any other: Sky City, a pueblo situated on a 367-foot-high sandstone rock. The dramatic views of and from Sky City are quite dramatic and are accessible only through a guided tour.
Just south of Albuquerque, at Isleta Pueblo, is one of the few remaining white adobe missions. With a rich blue sky as a backdrop, this west-facing building provides great contrast in the afternoon or evening hours.
Venturing farther south yields more ruin sites. Around Mountainair, 45 miles east of the town of Belen, are three sites that make up the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, all of which can be covered in a single day. Photography options are few at these ruins, but as with the other sites mentioned, the more you look around, the more photos you can find among the bricks.
Depending on when you plan your trip, many other photographic opportunities exist. During the winter migration season, one of the top birding locations in the country is about 100 miles south of Albuquerque at Bosque del Apache. Snow geese, sandhill cranes, eagles, roadrunners and various waterfowl winter at the refuge. Another option, in the fall, is the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, which draws people from all over the world.
Whenever you make your trip to New Mexico, most of the places you visit will challenge your photographic eye. Seeking out striking compositions is the key, and a fun challenge, on a journey to these cherished sites.